The best PC games 2021
A growing shortlist, whittled down from an epic list, of the best PC games ever.
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The not-so-humble PC is the biggest gaming platform on the planet, and will likely remain so as long as we have electricity and an Internet connection (in that order). Amid the sheer quantity of games released – thousands every year when you take the bright indie space into account – there’s a growing list of quality titles. The list below is all killer, no filler, and hopefully has something for everybody.
Come on, now. You didn't think you could get through a best of list without seeing this did you? Though Fortnite has its detractors in the PC gaming community (think: that weird hatred that comes from being "too popular") I have to give it its dues here today.
Basically, any game that is big enough to award a $3 million esports prize gets to be on this list by default.
"What's a Fortnite?" you might be asking yourself, as you sit on Mars in your cave, with two fingers in your ears. It's a third-person shooter battle royale that's equal parts gunplay and building cubby houses.
Essentially, 100 players are air dropped onto an island and are asked to go the tonk until only one of them remains. Success revolves around tactically using your terrain (or just building your own to get that Obi wan "higher ground advantage").
Scavenging the world for better randomised guns is also a must, as is getting out of Dodge when the playable area shrinks (out of bounds is cancer). Those are the basics of what can become an incredibly complex and intense online experience.
Go in forewarned, though: competition is fierce and the dance-based taunts from nine year olds, merciless.
League of Legends
I find it very unlikely that you haven't already heard the legends of this. The legends of the ridiculously large league of players who play...er, well, League of Legends. Once played by roughly 100 million players globally, this multiplayer online battle arena (or MOBA) has become an esport on its own level.
New champions are crowned constantly, too, as the tactics are ever-changing in this rapid-fire video game where actions and defeats are measured in milliseconds and there's a playstyle for every taste.
You can doggedly hold choke points as a Leonidas-level tank, turn the fortunes of your team with a support class, or shred lifebars with the showiest crit hits this side of an anime.
That being said, a lot of hard work and preternatural hand-eye coordination stands between you and the big leagues. Effective time management of your forces and having good communication with players willing to dovetail into one cohesive strategy are a must.
Even better, a constantly expanding roster of champions means this hyper-competitive battlefield never has a chance to go stagnant. Consider yourself warned: the large-scale conflicts of League of Legends become sheer addiction in no time flat.
This dragon may be long in the tooth, especially in the graphics department, but there's simply no denying how ambitious and immersive Skyrim is. (And hey, these visuals can be easily pepped up to more modern standards with a hi-res texture mod.)
Every gamer worth their salt needs to experience an Elder Scrolls title and at the time of writing this is the best one ever built by the talented artisans at Bethesda. Even those of us who know this game like the back of our hand (thanks to hundreds of hours of play) can hear the siren song to return to it every now and then. Such is the power of its world-building.
That said, the ludicrously deep mythology, insane amount of quests and dungeons are only half of the appeal here.
Skyrim offers you a crazy amount of agency when it comes to designing your protagonist, the foretold Dragonborn warrior whose decisions shall shape the fate of this world. You can literally be anybody or anything you want.
Heck, you'll probably lose hours in the editor, molding yourself into any heroic or villainous ideal you want from any fantasy tale you've ever consumed. Then, as icing on the cake, you can proceed to imbue them with super hero level powers stolen from Game of Thrones Season 8 sized dragons.
Honestly, just typing this makes me want to start up a fresh character. For the ninth time.
Blizzard Entertainment is a wonder. When all this developer knew was real-time strategy games it understandably drew a ton of mirth when announcing an intention to take on Everquest style MMOs. End result: World of Warcraft, and now Blizzard more or less owns the genre.
Years later, when it announced Overwatch, its first foray into the hyper-competitive world of first-person shooting, the same naysayers came along and were shut up completely. 2016's Overwatch has since grown into a global esports phenomenon that shows no signs of slowing down.
Thanks to constant evolution, this incredibly vibrant and stylish team shooter continues to dazzle and devour the hours of some 40 million players a month at one point (2018 figures). Feels like a worthy experiment to me...
The hook is simple. Overwatch is a colourful team-based shooter game starring a diverse cast of powerful heroes, each of them with a unique playstyle and a range of table-turning special moves.
You know what? Think "Street Fighter II meets a shooter" and you're not far off. Matches are fast, frenetic and almost always geared towards contesting objectives, communicating like battle-hardened Navy Seals and coordinating your individual special gifts while covering one another's weaknesses.
Even after all these years, Overwatch hasn't lost its edge and remains an exhilarating online blast that's easy to pick up and incredibly difficult to master.
I can only faintly remember the groans of "urgh not another PUBG". A lot of time has passed between those misguided complaints, Apex Legends' launch and the runaway success train we still find ourselves on today. And really, how could we not have read the signs earlier?
Unlike PUBG this was going to be a battle royale game funded by one of the biggest publishers in gamedom (EA) which was going to translate into a game that wasn't half-finished and buggier than a petrol station meat pie.
Also, it was designed by Respawn Entertainment, the criminally under-sung creators of the cult-hit shooter Titanfall 2. Apex was always going to exist right up there on the FPS food chain.
This is all due to a number of key differentiators that set it apart from Fortnite and PlayerUnknown's original article. Respawn is offering a triple-threat of a growing roster of powerful Legends with their own unique personality, strengths and abilities.
These 60-player brouhahas also have you teaming up with two other players who (hopefully) can combine their unique skills with your own.
Lastly, kinetic gunplay and the option to grapple hook people in, like Mortal Kombat's Scorpion, makes this more closely resemble Overwatch or Destiny 2. Trust me, if Apex isn't the absolute pinnacle of the battle royale genre, then this free-to-play offering is at least in the top two.
Meticulously encapsulating (and taking the ever-loving piss out of) Los Angeles is what Rockstar North does best. You need only replay GTA San Andreas to confirm this fact. That said, both on a technical and narrative level GTA V is ambitious, even by this peerless developer's terms.
On a solo level you can expect to get more than your money's worth in a Michael Mann-esque crime drama that effectively allows you to shift perspectives between three ne'er do wells. How you chose to further their respective bank robbing careers is up to you.
At your thievin' finger tips is a stupidly large sandbox that encourages experimentation. When you push it, a subsystem you didn't even consider will most likely push right back, often to kill you in a hilarious way.
As if that wasn't generous enough, Rockstar provides a staggeringly deep online mode that is like PlayStation Home meets a gangsters paradise.
Emergent hilarity will find you time and time again if you wander out into the state of San Andreas with nothing but a gat in your hand and money on your mind.
There are also a plethora of structured PvP modes to chew through, and some of the most gratifying co-op bank heists ever crafted by the hand of man (or is that Mann?).
Last but not least, GTA V's modding community is out of control. The "real-life" texture packs and VR functionality that have been shoehorned in are more mind-blowing than a gangland execution.
You know what? Sometimes you just have a bad day, and you don't want a video game to make you think. You just want to rip and tear until it is done.
More precisely, you wanna sit down, pull on a space marine helmet, scoop up a big f---ing gun (BFG) and lay waste to some demons. Said experience would only be improved if was scored to progressive metal liberally seasoned with post-industrial, glitch music and dark synth-rock.
Basically, if you love OG first-person shooting, Doom (2016) is heaven... in hell.
The story here is largely unnecessary. You are the Doomslayer, a conjured champion who's been unleashed upon a hellspawn army that's taken up residence in yet another Martian research facility.
Killing is your business and business is booming – literally, to the tune of a double barrelled shotgun that looks more like an anti-aircraft weapon.
The gameplay on offer is more or less a daisy-chained collection of arena fights that reward the creatively psychotic with better weapons and perks. Conversely, punishment is meted out to the player who stops running for half a second or doesn't execute wounded enemies for minor health buffs.
Action shooters haven't been this gory or gore-geous in decades. Acquire.
- RELEASE DATE: 10/10/07
- DEVELOPER: Valve Corporation
- PUBLISHER: Valve Corporation
I have fonder memories of Portal than I do of Portal 2. Despite Portal 2's more expansive story, nuttier characters and genuinely fun co-op mode, the original Portal was a game that I loved playing and, strangely, watching friends play.
Figuring out how to crack the increasingly trickier puzzles was a delight whether you were in the pilot's seat or playing as a backseat driver. Portal was one of the first games (if not the first game) to really challenge players to solve riddles in three-dimensional space. As a fan of adventure games growing up, this was like next-level stretching of my grey matter.
The other main thing that the original Portal has that Portal 2 lost in its multi-platform translation was puzzles that also rewarded quick reactions and fast aim. Presumably, these types of puzzles were regrettably absent from the sequel, because such fast-and-accurate feats aren't as easy to repeat on controllers.
But as an old-school shooter fan, they rewarded the types of skills I'd been honing since Wolfenstein 3D.
As fond as I am of the gravity-defying 2006 version, and as angry as I was when the promising Prey 2 was cancelled, this entry is dedicated to a whole lot of love for Arkane Studios' Prey.
It's a game that empowers players to try new things, not just in gameplay but also in character, and make narrative decisions that have big and often unforeseen consequences.
The minute-to-minute gameplay regularly and seamlessly shifts between tense and intense, plus there's a clever (but subtle) risk/reward upgrade system that makes you trade power fantasy for greater vulnerability.
It is in every sense of the word a modern-day classic, and one of the best action-RPGs ever made. In fact, it's so good that game-breaking bugs weren't enough to stop me from finishing it (though the bugs have been patched now, so you should dive in if you haven't already).
- RELEASE DATE: 28/09/99
- DEVELOPER: Relic Entertainment
- PUBLISHER: Sierra Studios
Relic Entertainment's Homeworld series was so far ahead of its time, its forward-thinking design hasn't been replicated or bested to this day.
While the world was (and still is) content to have strategy battles in two dimensions, Relic's 3D battles, rock-paper-scissors unit design, and meaningful formations were iconic features.
On top of this, your units carried over between missions, which was either a positive or negative, depending on how well you performed in the last mission. It was great if you'd dominated, but it sucked if your forces had been dwindled.
You wouldn't know it at the time, but starting a new mission after a close win might mean you don't have a force that's capable of withstanding a surprise attack at the start of the next mission. You basically had to restart.
This may sound frustrating, but players who persevered and refused to throw in the towel against tough AI foes were rewarded with a sense of strategic satisfaction unmatched in other strategy games.
Losing a single unit in Homeworld hurt, and it was this emotional attachment to your army, championed by mission-to-mission veterancy, that made a gripping sense of tension build with each passing mission.
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
- RELEASE DATE: 05/12/03
- DEVELOPER: BioWare
- PUBLISHER: LucasArts
Before there was the division of Mass Effect Andromeda (or Mass Effect 3 before that), BioWare was a developer many gamers saw as godlike.
While Baldur's Gate was the start of that legend, BioWare cemented itself as a storytelling powerhouse with Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.
Though not part of the official canon, such was its impact that parts of BioWare's Star Wars story have started slipping back into official post-George Lucas Star Wars lore.
At the time, the graphics were top-notch, and the Star Wars soundscape was understandably pitch-perfect. However, the real shining star was the sheer depth of gameplay mechanics and a plot twist so awesome that even 14 years after release, I won't mention for risk of spoiling it.
It's still that good. Given the shaky quality of Star Wars games (and their stories, where relevant) in recent years, it's important to flag that the expectation that there were still amazing Star Wars stories to tell after the release of the divisive prequel movies started with Knights of the Old Republic.
I loved and had finished this game before I even knew how to pronounce its title. At this point of my gaming life, I was almost exclusively a fan of real-time-strategy and first-person-shooter games.
I'd wager the only reason I even took a punt on Deus Ex was because I mistakenly thought it was an FPS.
How wrong I was, and how glad I was to be so wrong. The first thing that grabbed me was the conspiracy theory-rich storytelling. The next thing was the player empowerment through gameplay choices.
This'll likely sound silly in light of the countless action-RPGs that have been released in the last 17 years, but I was blown away by the fact that I could hack a door open, steal a code to open it or blow it off its hinges.
However, more important than this was how I was genuinely stressed out by the branching storyline, to the point where I created specific capital-letter saves at important junctures.
Sometimes it was just to test what would happen. Other times, it was so I could return to that decision and see how the game played out afterwards. Deus Ex hasn't aged so well visually (mods can address that to a certain extent), but its gameplay is still incredible today.
The thing I'll always chuckle about with The Witcher 3 is how much I love the game, even though I sank way more hours into the side quests and world exploration than I did into the main campaign.
That's not because I didn't enjoy the main storyline, far from it; it's because there are so many worthy distractions in The Witcher 3, they were impossible for me to ignore.
To put this into context, one of my friends has played close to 36 hours of the game and has unlocked 57 percent of the achievements, I assume by playing the main path. My play time is currently at 62 hours and I've only unlocked 23 percent of the achievements.
The Witcher 3 is a game I return to during times of quiet gaming because you can pick up where you left off (especially if you love the side quests like I do), and it's always rewarding.
It helps that it's gorgeous, particularly on a high-end PC. But really, CD Projekt Red has crafted such a beautifully realised world, the Continent has fast become my preferred digital holiday destination.
Quake III Arena
I'm determined to restrict myself to one game from each series (even the amazing ones), and settling on Quake III Arena over the first two Quakes was no easy task. The original Quake gave the world deathmatch, and was shooter fans' first taste of true 3D shooting. In every sense of the word, it was a game-changer.
Quake II had a solid campaign, amazing soundtrack and gifted the series with the almighty railgun. But Quake III was arguably the most seminal and the most fun. It would go on to provide the engine for the birth of the Call of Duty and the original Half-Life franchises.
Beyond this, Quake III was gorgeous at the time. It ran like a dream (even on low-end PCs), and like Portal's 3D puzzling, it cemented the idea that you often battled in three dimensions.
Nowadays, the term "verticality" refers to fighting enemies standing above or below you. In the days of Quake III, it meant fighting enemies who used rocket-jumps to propel themselves at impossible speeds over your head. This meant you could quite literally be fragged from 360 degrees.
When you thought you were good at the core multiplayer, mods like Rocket Arena 3 stepped in to show how much you had to learn.
Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis
- RELEASE DATE: 01/06/92
- DEVELOPER: LucasArts
- PUBLISHER: LucasArts
Of all the point-and-click games that came out of LucasArts during the golden age of adventure games, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis continues to be my all-time favourite.
Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, The Dig and Grim Fandango are all incredible, but Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis has a clever and innate replay-ability. It also stands as the best Indiana Jones story since Last Crusade.
While the later Monkey Island games had two difficulty settings, Fate of Atlantis had a lengthy middle section that played out differently depending on an early game choice.
You could play it as more of an action game, a puzzle-heavy experience or with cooperative puzzles in tandem with NPC Sophia Hapgood. These three distinct paths meant there were a bunch of hours in the middle of the game that played out completely differently in terms of their puzzles.
Some of these brain-scratchers were genuinely challenging, and the kind you forget when returning to it years after your last play-through (I've done this more than once). But ultimately it showed that LucasArts knew more about Indiana Jones than Lucasfilm did, splicing action, adventure, history, religious artefacts, Nazi enemies and plenty of humour into an offering worthy of the eponymous character.
Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings
- RELEASE DATE: 30/11/99
- DEVELOPER: Ensemble Studios
- PUBLISHER: Microsoft
Clearly, 1999 was a hell of a year for gaming. Not counting the two games already listed here, it also included System Shock 2, Unreal Tournament, and Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings.
There are a lot of reasons why Age of Kings received universal acclaim, has been HD-ified, is set to receive a Definitive Edition and is beloved by fans still today.
Not only did it improve on what Ensemble had built in the original Age of Empires, it added genre-defining features, like idle unit buttons, a town bell for calling villagers back to safety, and the option to customise keys for maximum actions-per-minute (a feature we take for granted nowadays).
Before the Total War series was born, Age of Empires was the best way to have fun while learning about history, but mostly it was about building a sprawling town, appropriate defences and an army for taming the hostile game world.
While core units were familiar across the board, which made learning other factions a whole lot easier, the unique units helped define your play style (Longbowmen were amazing).
I honestly never got into competitive multiplayer, but I lost dozens of hours to co-op bot matches against the challenging AI, which often ended with my friends and me bunkering down at the spawn point that was the most easily defended.
Half Life 2
- RELEASE DATE: 16/11/04
- DEVELOPER: Valve Corporation
- PUBLISHER: Valve Corporation
It was a six-year wait between the original mostly fantastic Half-Life and its sequel. And Half-Life was already a game-changer, most notably in the mod space.
Half-Life 2, on the other hand, is still a peerless first-person-shooter experience. It doesn't need fancy RPG systems or branching narratives to be effective.
Instead, it's built atop tight shooter gameplay, amazing world-building, and a narrative approach that rewards curious players eager to learn more about this beautifully realised story.
Enemies are diverse, the set pieces are suitably epic, the soundtrack is fantastic, and it gave the gaming world the gravity gun: a weapon that let you turn a toilet into a bullet.
Instead of doing a lazy sequel that offered more of the same, Valve went all out by creating an entirely new enemy. It's the kind of follow-up that feels like the developer could create a whole new game set between Half-Life and Half-Life 2. Or maybe they could just make Half-Life 3.
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